Second placeBy Josh Green
Through the smoke, Johnson Mathers could see Dickey at the forlorn end of the barroom, stationed where he always used to be. Back when Johnson was cool. Back before Johnson married a cop and his penchant for the occasional doobie was forced into extinction. In Dickey's hipster sneer and peacock neck tattoo Johnson saw just what he'd been looking for: a scalawag who might double as a sounding board. Johnson toed up to the bar, the longest vessel of its kind in southeast Atlanta. When Dickey saw him, he whooped: "Well I'll be a cat's ass in a dog's mouth!"
Johnson cuffed his old-fashioned, wove through a huddle of dudes, and saddled up next to Dickey. They bumped knuckles. "Was afraid all the old regulars had moved on," Johnson said. "I hate coming to bars alone, even this one."
"Short leash still?"
"How is she these days, your cop wife?" Dickey said.
Johnson peered into his tumbler. His temples ached after another week of auditing failing car dealerships. He used to catch tax cheats for a living, but with the recession his scrutiny turned to corporations, whose executives wanted excuses to axe half the staff. Johnson bowed to assholes all day and feigned self-respect.
"She's pregnant," he said. "Eight months."
"Brother, congratulations." Dickey set down his PBR and clapped.
"No," Johnson said. "Stop."
"But this is the Irish mazel tov — drunken clapping," Dickey said. "Why stop?"
"Because it's all over now," Johnson said. "I mean this is the absolute end of being young. She's allowing me this one last half-night out; I have a curfew. We're going to some place called 'Breast-feeding School' in the morning. We have to log three hours. And then shopping. All day. Saturday — poof, gone."
"For onesies. And specialized pacifiers. And this fucking space-age bottle that minimizes air intake, and thus the need for burping."
Dickey slapped a wiry hand on Johnson's arm and hollered: "Shots!"
Though 30 years old, Johnson had essentially been grounded for several months. And his wife, Gilder, was capable of stomping to Risky's Tavern and retrieving her wayward man like an inebriated burglary suspect. She'd dragged him home once before, at the 20-week mark, the night before they learned the baby's gender.
"Don't run away from this," Gilder had said, her hand in clockwise orbit around her abdomen. "We're going it together, from here until forever."
"You got it," Johnson told his wife. "You. Me. It. Forever."
Midnight descended. To Johnson, the barroom swayed like a kelp forest of buffoonery. He stared at his watch.
"It's the end of Johnson's last night, isn't it?" Dickey said, sucking a Parliament.
"I have to be coherent," Johnson said. "I have to learn something at the school."
"What's the point?" said Dickey. "Not your tits."
"The man, they say, plays a vital role."
"Men are predators, not nurturers."
"Not modern man," Johnson said. "Modern man is a bitch."
As Johnson settled his tab and stood up, Dickey leaned in: "Come out to the parking lot," he said. "I have something in the back of my Cavalier."
Johnson backed away. "I'm not smoking anything," he said. "They test at Alfred and Associates. Piss and hair."
"Just come," Dickey said. "You'll go home happier, and you'll learn more at school."
Streetlights cast a dirty yellow pall on Dickey's moribund Cavalier, a rust-bitten convertible. Dickey opened the trunk and exhumed a pizza box. "I read somewhere, or maybe heard it on television, that all parenthood really boils down to is the ability to sacrifice," Dickey said. "It's a noble thing you're doing."
"You know," Dickey said, "I think I heard that line about sacrifice on 'Oprah.'"
"You dragged me out here for pizza?"
Dickey made the conniving hand gestures of a novice magician. "This is special pizza, boy," he said. "A mushroom recipe I've been working on. Fully organic with only the slightest hint of psychotropic backlash."
"You're out of your mind."
"This one's on me."
"I'm not eating anything from you."
"Quality cheese, a little prosciutto," Dickey said, poking Johnson's ribs, "and I'm pretty sure I found the right pasture."
"I never tried mushrooms."
"Then you don't know the cosmic answer."
"Hey, maybe it won't work," he shrugged, "but you can't say I sent you home hungry."
Johnson clasped the box and turned toward home. "I appreciate the thought. See you when I see you."
"Sacrifice yourself," Dickey said, "and you'll know the meaning of life."
To Johnson's surprise, Gilder had slept through his tardiness. He poured a glass of water from the fridge and cracked a lite beer. Pale blue moonlight permeated the kitchen. Johnson eyed the pizza box. He opened it and inhaled a surprisingly fresh aroma, a hint of basil and mozzarella. He dipped a finger in the sauce — smoky, oniony. He reconciled the risk: Dickey had always talked so much shit, surely this was his way of disguising a kind gesture. One way or another a single piece of good pizza wouldn't kill a man.
"OK," Johnson said. "This better be groovy, or whatever."
Johnson washed the slice down with beer. Nothing really happened — no flying dragons, no glittery sorcerers. After 10 minutes he tiptoed to the bedroom, curled beside his snoring Gilder, and let his mind fill with dreams.
Gastrointestinal tremors besieged Johnson an hour later. He raced clumsily to the master bathroom, bashing a steel wastebasket, slamming the door.
"I give you an inch," Gilder scolded from bed, "and you drink yourself sick."
"Not drunk," he pleaded, knees on tile. "Something I ate."
She harrumphed and went quiet again.
When the vomiting subsided, Johnson glimpsed himself in the massive bathroom mirror. He looked haggard and crazy, like the Mister Hyde interpretation in classic cartoons, his pupils like hazel poker chips. He was stricken with the feeling that his parents were coming over, Bob and Judy unannounced, and that they were angry with him. In his cheekbones and forehead he could see the blending of various European lineages, an Americanized stew in one berserk face. He questioned the vitality of his own name, wondering what those syllables would mean to excavators 5,000 years after the meteors. Johnson fully extended his tongue to examine the taste buds, which made him think of snakes, red pythons in the attic, so he turned off all the bathroom lights and cowered beside the toilet until dawn. Chirping wrens and thrashers brought solace, but also conjured visions of carnivorous flying squirrels. He repeatedly flushed the toilet, 30 flushes in an hour, one cataclysmic purge after the next, a sound that cleansed his harried soul. His breathing stabilized. But then Gilder's alarm clock blared. She hit snooze once and rewrote modern history. Nine minutes later, she turned the alarm off.
Gilder rapped on the bathroom door with long, sharp fingernails. Trapped, Johnson budged open the bathroom window. He was contemplating an army crawl onto the roof when the door creaked open.
"Fresh air?" Gilder groggily said. "You slept in here?"
Johnson sat on the toilet, staring down at swirling ceramic tiles. "I'm so sick," he wheezed. "Can't go."
"Bullshit," his wife said, disrobing and stepping into the rainfall shower, her midsection a veiny beach ball. The water danced down Gilder. Johnson recalled the great waterfalls of Hawaii, where they'd honeymooned, where she admitted, tongue loose on Mai Tais, that marrying an accountant felt like a letdown, that she'd always fancied a veterinarian or cowboy. She had apologized a hundred times, but Johnson could never let that comment go.
"I'm not John Wayne," he said, on the toilet. "You know I'll never be John Wayne."
Gilder flung open the shower door. "You drunk prick," she said. "Splash your face, have coffee, and wait for me in the car. I paid $90 for these classes, and you're going to learn something. Stop acting like a baby yourself and start thinking about your son."
Johnson worked his jaw in circles and nodded. He exited the paranoiac shack the bathroom had become. One look at his sunlit bedroom and he felt better. He could sense the global retreat of night, the darkness dragging across Texas plateaus, bound for San Diego, pulling with it his nightmarish introspection. He meandered through the home, took one more huge bite for breakfast and pushed the remaining pizza into the garbage disposal. He went outside. He felt light as bubbles.
Before long, Gilder plopped in the Honda's driver's seat. She was impatient and uncaffeinated, but Johnson felt buttressed by her spitfire energy. In the soft-lit morning she looked like the angel of fertility, her blouse glowing with clean frilly whiteness. He loved this woman with all the affection of his past partnerships combined, and he could see that now with arithmetical clarity. They slipped onto the freeway and melted into light weekend traffic. Midtown towers flicked by like backcountry telephone poles.
"Don't get a boner."
Gilder growled the order as they joined a torrent of human pairings loading into the Ronald Wichita Auditorium, an egg-shaped addition to Peachtree Hospital. Gilder clasped her husband's hand, which invited a return bout of paranoia. They hadn't held hands in years.
"Why would this give me a boner?" Johnson said, gulping. "Do you know what a directive like that can do to a man?"
"They're going to use real photos," she said. "I heard some women might even model, to show us technique. You can close your eyes during all that."
"Can I close my eyes all day?"
She yanked his arm. "What did you do last night?"
Johnson said nothing.
Inside, the auditorium was vast and awkward, a steep slope with worn cinema chairs. The stage was heavily shellacked and crowded with big-breasted mannequins. There was a podium and swan-neck microphone. Behind it all stretched a wide white screen. They found an aisle seat and Johnson watched the women pass. Against the screen they were wobbling silhouettes, penguins smuggling basketballs. The husbands bore facial expressions suggestive of lumbar pain.
"There could be a mutiny," Johnson said.
"If they aren't satisfied with the show, don't you get a feeling these women might revolt?"
"This isn't a show, you dumbass."
Johnson grit his teeth and drew sanitized oxygen into his chest. "You know what Oprah says about parenthood?" he said. "You hear about this? She says children should be sacrificed."
"Look at me," Gilder said, squeezing his arm. "What's wrong with your pupils? Tell me what you took."
"Baby, look," he said, and then paused. He could hear a thousand areolas darkening. "Keep asking me this shit, in a place like this, and I'm liable to spontaneously combust."
"Just shut up," she said. "OK? Not another word. Take notes."
Johnson focused on the virgin paper of his notebook, the blue lines waving like Maui swells. The auditorium had reached capacity. A video flashed on the screen, showing a petite but hard-stepping lady walking a hospital corridor, healing people. She stared into the camera, into the darkened auditorium, and smiled: "Welcome to the Breast-feeding School!"
Johnson whispered: "The Grand Empress cometh."
In the flesh, the Grand Empress arose from stage left, and the room's lights fell dim. This was really happening. She was dainty but direct, clad in a red business suit, her feet pounding in black heels. She tossed grandmotherly smiles to the crowd. Johnson was sure he could see through the façade, that she was really the wicked headmaster of a Third World orphanage. Behind her the screen transformed into a gargantuan breast diagram, a paisley flower of milk ducts and fatty tissue. She took the microphone and introduced herself, to Johnson's ears, as Doctor Carole Something.
"Babies are born suckers," Doctor Something said. "Let's get that straight, right off the bat."
Johnson leaned back into his seat, wishing he might evaporate, or fall into a secret corridor. He studied the other men and decided it best to not evaporate, but to be a damn man. The doctor spoke of nurturing bonds, skin-to-skin benefits, and — worst — Montgomery glands, the bumpy outposts around the nipple's hollow tower. This required an illustration, then a real breast photo, which consumed the entire screen. It was the least erotic thing Johnson had ever seen, a brown-eyed Cyclops lunging at the crowd.
Johnson leaned over: "She stole our money."
"Write down what she was saying," Gilder said. "The bit about bloody nipples."
Next up was a sketch of twins suckling their mother, one breast each. Johnson thought of puppies. Then he thought he saw puppies in the aisles. "OK," he said, "break time. I'll be in the hall."
Johnson exited the auditorium and beelined to the nearest window, for proof the hospital hadn't sunk to a lunatic netherworld. He wandered into the men's restroom, where two husbands near the sinks were discussing college football.
"I only ate one slice," Johnson told them.
The men looked at each other. The taller one, who wore a sport coat and leather driving shoes, smiled. The shorter one donned a pinkie ring. Johnson knew this was no time for men with pinkie rings.
"I think we all ate the slice," the tall man said. "Or else we wouldn't be here, listening to this mumbo jumbo about inverted nipples."
All three laughed. Johnson was convinced he'd found kindred voyagers on the psychedelic crazy train.
"You guys afraid of Oprah?"
The tall one tossed a wadded paper towel in a countertop hole. "She scares the hell out of me," he said.
Johnson extended his knuckles for bumping, first to the tall man and then the short one, but neither obliged. They didn't seem to know what Johnson wanted; his fist hung lonely in the air. Their cordial acceptance of him shifted to cold analysis.
"You doing OK, man?" the short guy said. "Look a little wound up."
"Oh," Johnson said, "peachy."
Said the tall one, "It'll be over soon."
"How do you know?"
"Program says so."
"Who's fucking program?" Johnson snapped. "Tell me what you mean."
The men gave up on Johnson and walked toward the door. As Johnson lifted his arms and gasped, the tall man turned around. "You know, you should get back in there," he said. "This isn't about you. It's about your kid."
Johnson broke into a drenching sweat. He knew what had to be done: retrieve his wife, take her to a park with a wide green field, and tell her everything. He calmly exited the bathroom but took a wrong turn; instead of auditorium doors he came to an art deco mezzanine. It was a vast, silent space. Beneath the entryway was a bench, upon which sat a figure Johnson mistook for a sculpture at first, but determined via her sniffling nose to be an actual woman, and a very pregnant one at that. She faced the exit, even leaned toward it, but she didn't stand, anchored by an unseen weight. Johnson wanted to confide in her, to cleanse his angst in her motherly aura.
"Do you know which way the Breast-feeding School is?"
"Back the way you came," she said, "then left."
Johnson tipped an invisible cap. "Is the program over?"
"No," she said. "I couldn't take the full three hours at once, you know."
The marble between them felt to Johnson like thin glass, but he wanted to examine the sunlight in her blonde hair, the sincerity in her face. "Can I come closer?" he said. "That bench looks amazing."
She leaned against the wall, pointing to the vacancy beside her. "How far along is your wife?"
"Oh," he said, "there's no going back."
Johnson shuffled across the marble. Up close, the woman was morose, her abdomen a bulbous contradiction to her slim frame. She tried to hide her eyes because she had been crying, but blushless channels on her cheeks divulged her secret woes. Johnson sat down and said, bluntly, "Hormones?"
She snorted. She showed her puffy eyelids. She didn't care now. "Possibly."
Johnson flexed his toes, his hands flat on his thighs. In reverence of her and the unborn child he kept a weirdly perfect posture. "I've had a long day," he said.
"You look tired," she said. "No offense."
Johnson shrugged. "I'm recovering from food poisoning." He nodded at her belly, her hands. "Will your wedding ring not fit, either? My wife's won't."
"Don't have one," she said.
She seemed offended, but she answered. "He wants to chip in from a distance. The father. A bartender I barely know. This wasn't exactly in his plans, or mine."
Johnson felt his face drop. "Is that why you're out here?"
Her face wilted. "I think I was the only one in there by myself."
"I was," she said. "Really think I was."
"It'll be OK."
She rubbed her eyes.
"Look," Johnson said, "I don't know what I'm talking about, and I don't know you, but I'm pretty tuned in to our cosmic energy, and I can tell you this ... that baby is going to be a dancer."
She reached over the bench and clutched Johnson's hand. Her faint blue veins were like his mother's. He put his ear to her belly, rested his head on the bench, and pulled up his legs. Eyes closed, he told her he'd heard the baby pirouetting. He fell asleep as she whispered goodbye, patted his head, and vanished.
Hands on hips, Gilder stood over Johnson as he awoke. She knelt to his level and studied his face, as she might a gunshot victim. Behind her, the seminar attendees were leaving in droves, chatting about parking fees and maternity wards and the oncoming commitment of everything. Johnson focused on his wife's face. Before she could issue one stern word, he extended his hand, let it rest on her womb, and in the center of his palm he felt a tiny nudge, his son's first high five.
Atlanta journalist and author Josh Green's fiction has appeared in national journals including the Los Angeles Review and his short-story collection, Dirtyville Rhapsodies, will be published in May.
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